The three greatest hymn-writers of our English tongue are Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Fanny Crosby. There are many who think that the hymn we are to study is the greatest hymn ever written; all men agree that it is the best of Wesley's hymns, though he wrote no less than six thousand. Many of these six thousand, too, rise to the highest rank of religious poetry, such as those beginning: "Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim," "Come, Thou long-expected Jesus," "A charge to keep I have," "Arise, my soul, arise," "Love divine, all love excelling," "Depth of mercy! Can there be," "Soldiers of Christ, arise," "Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing," and the noble Christmas hymn, "Hark! the herald angels sing." That is a wonderful list of great hymns to be written by one man.
Charles Wesley, next to the youngest of nineteen children, was born at Epworth, England, on December 18, . His father was Rev. Samuel Wesley, and his mother, Susannah Wesley, was a very remarkable woman. When he was a lad of fifteen, an Irish member of Parliament, Garret Wesley, a wealthy man, wanted to adopt him. His father left him to decide the matter, and he decided in the negative. The boy that was finally adopted became the father of the Duke of Wellington (Lord "Wellesley," as he spelled "Wesley"), who conquered Napoleon at Waterloo. How history might have been changed if young Charles Wesley had not decided as he did!
In 1735 Wesley became a clergyman of the Church of England, and went with his brother John on a missionary journey to Georgia, becoming secretary to Governor Oglethorpe. Within a year, broken in health and discouraged, he was compelled to return to England.
Years before this, when Charles Wesley was at Oxford, he and his comrades were so strict in their religious methods that they were nicknamed "Methodists." But both Charles and John had to learn more truly what religion really is. Charles first learned it from Peter Böhler, a Moravian of devout spirit, and from Thomas Bray, an unlearned mechanic who knew Jesus Christ. John soon after had the same experience, and from their vivified preaching sprung the great Methodist churches of today. Under the preaching of the Wesleys — especially that of John Wesley, for Charles soon withdrew from the more active work — revivals flamed all over England. There was much persecution. Charles himself was driven from his church. Many of his hymns were written in time of trial, and it is said that "Jesus, Lover of my soul," was written just after the poet and his brother had been driven by a violent mob from the place where they had been preaching. Another story (and neither tale can be verified) says that the hymn was written just after a frightened little bird, pursued by a hawk, had flown into Wesley's window and crept into the folds of his coat. The probable date of the hymn is 1740.
After a long life of nearly eighty years, Charles Wesley died, March 29, 1788.
Here is his great hymn, including the third stanza, which is now never sung:—
Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high!
Hide me, O my Saviour, hide,
Till the storm of life be past;
Safe into the haven guide,
Oh, receive my soul at last!
Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me!
All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.
Wilt Thou not regard my call?
Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—
Lo! on Thee I cast my care:
Reach me out Thy gracious hand!
While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand,
Dying, and, behold, I live!
Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in Thee I find:
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy name;
I am all unrighteousness:
False and full of sin I am;
Thou art full of truth and grace.
Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound,
Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art
Freely let me take of Thee:
Spring Thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity!
This was [Charles] Finney's last song, sung by him the day before his death. The hymn has brought comfort to innumerable death-beds.
Just before the battle of Chickamauga a drummer-boy dreamed that he had gone home and was greeted by his dear mother and sister. He awoke very sad, because both mother and sister were dead, and he had no home. He told the little story to the chaplain before he went into the battle. He was left on the field with the dead and dying, and in the quiet of the night his voice was heard singing "Jesus, Lover of my soul." No one dared go to him. When he reached the lines,
"Leave, ah! leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me,"
his voice grew silent; and the next day his body was found leaning against a stump, beside his drum. He had indeed gone home to his mother and sister.
Another beautiful story is told of this hymn in connection with the Civil War. In a company of old soldiers, from the Union and Confederate armies, a former Confederate was telling how he had been detailed one night to shoot a certain exposed sentry of the opposing army. He had crept near and was about to fire with deadly aim when the sentry began to sing, "Jesus, Lover of my soul." He came to the words,
"Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing."
The hidden Confederate lowered his gun and stole away. "I can't kill that man," said he, "though he were ten times my enemy."
In the company was an old Union soldier who asked quickly,
"Was that in the Atlanta campaign of '64?
Then I was the Union sentry!"
And he went on to tell how, on that night, knowing the danger of his post, he had been greatly depressed, and, to keep up his courage, had begun to hum that hymn. By the time he had finished, he was entirely calm and fearless. Through the song God had spoken to two souls.